Thousands of Oregon students have shifted to new state tests this year. The new standardized exams are creating one of the most stressful testing seasons in years. The feelings toward the test vary a lot from one school to another.
In the Columbia Gorge town of Mosier, school officials are putting a positive spin on the new Smarter Balanced tests. Schools Director Brian Schimel calls testing days “a learning celebration.”
“A lot of breaks, a lot of fun, a lot of recess, and also a lot of snacks to go along with it — healthy snacks, too,” Schimel said.
Mosier’s party atmosphere doesn’t end there.
“We don’t normally have hats in the school, so they wear their thinking caps on testing days,” Schimel said. “Also gum — we don’t have gum in school, but while they’re testing, that’s a benefit.”
On testing days, Mosier students focus entirely on the exams. No classes. They’ll test for an hour or so, then have a 15 minute break, then more testing, interrupted by more breaks or a long lunch. Eighth-graders Isabel Lira, Annalee Anglin and Reegan Tweten like test days.
“Yeah, I definitely look forward to them. It’s a lot less stressful. We just get more time to think. It’s a lot nicer,” Isabel said.
“Getting breaks is nice because you get to rest your eyes from staring at the computer, and the tests aren’t as bad as everyone is making them sound,” Annalee said.
Reegan said she appreciated the breaks “because you get to re-fuel, just take a moment, and think about what you went over, and let your brain re-function, I guess.”
Mosier has the same approach for younger grades.
“I had a fourth-grade student during the break time,” Schimel said. “First break time came up and (the student said), ‘You know, this is kind of like the best day of school in my life, and the worst day of school of my life all together.’ I love how they can explain it. That’s exactly it: It’s a lot of testing, a lot of fun, and a lot of relaxation.”
That’s far from the feeling in many Oregon schools.
Greg Burrill has been working all over Portland Public Schools as a substitute teacher on testing days.
The old state tests were shorter. The new ones are tougher. To do well, students have to be able to type, follow complicated directions, manipulate objects online and sometimes persist through bugs in the software.
Burrill is among the teachers worried that struggling students won’t do well — and that the tests will hurt their connection to learning.
“Teachers — people they love and trust — leading them into a room and giving them a test that says they’re no good,” Burrill said. “So, we’re talking about a minority of students that suffer serious harm from the test.”
Other teachers say students are more likely to give up on doing well and finish the test as quickly as they can.
The tests are required, but parents can request to opt their children out of the tests. Some teachers think that’s a good idea, but they’re not allowed to start a conversation about that at school.
“What most teachers I know have done [if they want to have conversations about the tests], is wear a button that says ‘opt-out’ and that gives a student a chance to ask,” Burrill said. “Or they display an opt-out form on their desk. And the student will go, ‘What’s this?’ But the student has to ask us a question.”
The teacher influence is a touchy subject — and not just in Oregon. Washington is also administering the Smarter Balanced test. Washington Superintendent Randy Dorn suspects teachers are on a campaign to help students opt out.
“If teachers are doing that, I think it’s an ethical violation of their contract, because it’s a requirement by the state, by the federal government,” Dorn argued.
Participation rates vary widely throughout Oregon and Washington. Hundreds of high schoolers in Seattle and Lake Oswego have opted out. So have more than 2,000 students in Portland Public Schools.
But in East Portland’s Parkrose district, only two students opted out. And in Mosier, where students get breaks and chew gum at test time? There aren’t many opting out there, either.